Nick Strimple – composer, conductor, scholar

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I was inspired by my fourth grade music teacher Bernice Parrott. I was very fortunate because, where I grew up, the [US] public schools had very good music programs. I thought Mrs. Parrott was just terrific. I especially remember two lessons, one of which was on Mozart and the other on Dvorák. I remember thinking to myself if Mozart can compose at such a young age why can’t I?

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

The biggest influence on my career as a composer is folk music, as well as congregational and group pieces, especially those that involve singing. I am of course also inspired by other composers such as Bach, Bartok, Dvorák and Vaughan Williams who were also influenced by this music.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

One of the biggest challenges I encountered early on in my career was managing to say focused on a career in music, and not giving up. This was economically difficult during the early 1980’s when my daughter was an infant. She had some health issues and I needed to make more money, so aside from what I did musically I also had to work other jobs: I was as a clerk in a music shop and worked as a private detective for a few years; I also worked at my church Thursday and Sunday. I would take any music jobs that came along, which was possible because one of the perks of being a private detective was that the hours were very flexible. Another challenge has always been gracefully accepting the numerous frustrations that come along. Things don’t always turn out the way you want them to, and if something goes wrong in a performance there is nothing you can do about it. It is simply part of life.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The biggest challenge of commissioned pieces is that often you are writing something you may not have been interested in writing to begin with. Of course, one of the main pleasures is the pay check at the end of it. When you are writing for a particular ensemble, you have to stay within the boundaries of what they can do and what their audience can tolerate. Still, everyone likes a surprise and you shouldn’t be controlled by what may be expected. On the other hand, you must keep in mind the technical and artistic capabilities of the commissioning ensemble and try to stay within those boundaries. It is nice to stretch the performers but not so much that they cannot manage it. Another pleasure is knowing that the piece will definitely get at least one performance; and I always hope the performers will enjoy playing it.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

It is always a challenge working with an ensemble or individual musician for the first time because you often do not yet know their personality and how they work, so you need to find out what they want out of the partnership. This was an issue in my early career when I was doing a lot of pop arranging. Since my background is purely classical, I wondered why they hired me. I was working with Air Supply and they told me not to worry about. They simply wanted me to do what I do and they would take care of the rest. While that did put my mind to rest it was still a challenge to come to terms with the idea that they hired me just to be me. That’s what they wanted. Now I prefer to work with people who are already familiar to me. I know how they work and what they like and there is more confidence in the professional relationship. You know what to expect and they also know the same about you and it becomes a labour of love because I understand them and what they can do and what they like. But this creates other challenges, too. Currently I’m faced with the issue of older singers who want to keep working, but just can’t deliver the goods any more. This is a real issue for me because many of them are my friends.

Of which works are you most proud?

I like a lot of what I have written recently. Considering my whole body of work, I would say my two Christmas cantatas and Sinfonia Breve, which I composed for the London Symphony Orchestra, are at the top of my list. I also very much like Franciscan Canticles, which is being performed a lot at present, and a chamber work entitled Music for the Blue Rose. Most recently Corpus Christi, a choral work commissioned by Suzi Digby and based on William Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus” has been very successful.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My music is modal – based on triads that are not necessarily used in a traditional manner. My music tends to be linear so I like contrapuntal forms. I also like to experiment with musical techniques derived from medieval music and Schoenbergian dodecaphony.

How do you work?

I am composing constantly in my head. Other than that there are two ways I compose depending on the time of year – in the summer, and when I am really finishing up something, I often go outside in my garden in the evenings, have a scotch and a cigar (the cigar ensures my family won’t bother me!); I like to be alone in that ambience. In the winter when the weather is not as pleasant, I will soak in the hot tub until l am a prune, all the while working things out in my head before writing them down afterwards.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Beethoven, Bach, Bernstein, Bartok, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn, Dvorák, Janacek, Vaughan Williams, Hindemith, Aaron Copland, John Adams, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The performers I like most are the ones I grew up with, many of whom are now dead, including Rudolph Firkusny, Isaac Stern, Piatagorsky and Heifetz. When they were performing 19th century music I think they did it in a manner that sounded true to the source.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I remember several memorable performances. One was whilst I was in high school. I heard Firkusny play Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. The rest of the programme was the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg by Wagner and Symphony by Zoltán Kodály. It was just fantastic! And I will never forget the first time I heard the New York Philharmonic live when I was a college student, they performed the Overture to Oberon by Weber, Elgar’s Cello Concerto and the Mendelsohn’s compete Midsummer Night’s Dream. The third was a recent performance of Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. While I was in college I was also greatly impressed by a live performance of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. The last special concert memory I can think of right now – one that really blew me away – was hearing my son, when he was in high school, sing Billy Joel’s Lullaby, while accompanying himself at the piano. Prior to the concert I didn’t know he would be singing a solo and I was very surprised; also very proud because he was really, really good!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think a most important thing for young artists is to think critically. In the States, we have a lot of music being composed that is not well thought out and very derivative; its sole purpose is to sell copies. Of course, all composers want their music to sell but people perform these pieces without taking a long hard look at them and analysing them. Performers should think critically especially when it comes to selecting new music to add into their repertoire. To produce good results artists must take time to think critically and objectively concerning what may be the best approach for them. They must not be afraid to ask why things aren’t working and they must not be afraid to change if necessary. Critical thinking moves you forward.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I would like to still be alive.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I don’t have an idea of perfect happiness, it is overrated. I think it was Aristotle who taught that you can’t tell if you had a happy life until you are on your death bed looking back at it. I want my children to be happy and healthy and for them to be good people and citizens.

What is your most treasured possession?

I own one of Bruno Walters’ batons which hangs, framed, on my wall. It’s a very special thing.

Nick Strimple, faculty member in the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California (USC) and Music Director of the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale, is a composer, conductor, scholar, and author who has had a long and versatile career. His interests include twentieth century music, Jewish music, the music of Dvořák and other Czech composers, the aesthetics of sacred music, and virtually all aspects of choral music.

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